“She stood up straight” | 21 August 2016

Text: Luke 13:10-17

 The great 16th century reformer Martin Luther characterized the human condition with the Latin phrase “homo incurvatus in se.”  I never studied Latin, but this is a good one for beginners.  It sounds a lot like its English equivalent.  Homo – Human.    incurvatus – curved in.    in se – on itself.  This is the predicament of our species, Luther taught, our sinful state.  Humanity curved in on itself.

This can be pictured fairly easily.  It’s visual.  It is bodily.  Rather than having one’s head up, eyes looking out, ears attentive, the body curves in on itself.  Incurvatus.  And we are stuck.  We can’t see beyond ourselves.  We can’t really reach out beyond ourselves.  We are curved in on ourselves.

And if this is the broken condition, then salvation looks like this:  Having one’s back straightened, one’s shoulders lifted, one’s head raised, eyes now alert, arms open.  Curved in à salvation.

I’ve been assuming these two positions at random times the last few days, partly to feel the difference between them, and partly because I overworked my back one day during the stay-cation portion of our vacation and am still feeling it.  The hidden cost of do it yourself house projects.

I once heard someone say that you know you’re getting older when you bend over to pick something up and you think, Now what else can I do while I’m down here.  I’m not that bad off – yet.

It just so happens that this week’s gospel lectionary has to do with incurvatus and standing up straight.  Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, the final time he will do this in Luke.   It’s the Sabbath, the day of rest.  And there was a woman there.  A woman whose name we never learn, identified only by her disability.  As Luke tells it, she had been disabled by a spirit for 18 years.  She was bent over.  She couldn’t stand up straight.

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, but when he notices her, he interrupts his own lecture, and calls her over.

The woman comes over, up, in to the center.  Everyone’s attention turns.  The object of the day’s lesson is no longer a scroll.  It’s no longer ancient words being parsed, text being meditated on and interpreted.  All eyes are focused on this woman.  The object of the day’s lesson has suddenly become a body.  The bent over, crooked body of this woman.

We have been taught the skills of interpreting texts, but how do you interpret a body?  What’s it saying?  What does it mean?  What’s the story here?  Behind the obvious plain reading, what are the subtle and nuanced forces at work?

Knowing what we know about how women were treated in that world – very poorly – and keeping in mind the special attention Luke gives throughout his gospel to marginalized people, this woman becomes all the more central to what Jesus proclaimed in his first synagogue appearance in Luke, in his hometown of Nazareth.  That the good news for all people had to do with proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free.

When Luther wrote about incurvatus, he meant it primarily as being self-centered.  We are narcissistic, naval gazers, and the more we are curved inward the smaller our world gets, until it is just the isolated self, pitying itself.  This is certainly part of the picture, and seems to be the demon that Luther himself, a person of power and privilege, wrestled with most of his life.

There’s a good chance Luke is inviting us into an additional dimension of incurvatus in this story.  Like the other gospel writers Luke is fond of linking different stories together through textual clues.  Jesus will justify this Sabbath healing by arguing that people are willing to untie their ox on the Sabbath and lead it to water, so how much moreso should this woman, tied up for 18 long years, be unbound.  Jesus will soon perform another Sabbath healing, this time for a man.  He’ll make another ox-based argument – this time about getting an ox out of a pit.  The connection invites us to pay attention to how the stories illuminate eachother.

Sabbath, Sabbath.  Ox, ox.  Woman, man.  Healed, healed.

Another pertinent connection here is with a story right before it, and that thread in this case is that number 18.  Eighteen years she had this disabling spirit.  Just a few verses before, in the same chapter, Jesus recalls a recent event in which the tower of Siloam fell on a group of people, killing all of them.  All 18 of them.  It was common, and still is, unfortunately, to moralize such events.  What did those 18 people do wrong to deserve a fate like that?  Jesus flatly rejects this thinking, saying “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, No”  (Luke 13:4-5).

And now we are introduced to this woman, disabled by a spirit for 18 years.  What, Luke might be nudging us to ask, has fallen on this woman over the course of those 18 years to cause her to be, in the words of the NRSV, “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight?”  What kind of spirit is this doing the disabling?

This leaves plenty to the imagination.  Lots of room for midrash, for filling in the blanks, which for preachers is almost irresistible.  Was this one tragic incident 18 years ago that curved this woman back in on herself, or was this a barrage of events?  An accumulation, slowly bending her over until she’s no longer recognizable, even to herself?

When does the wide eyed girl, full of life, full of herself, first learn that she is less-than?  When do the shoulders first slump?  When does the head first dip, ever so slightly?  Is it a word, an offhand remark?  Is it an unwanted touch?  Is it just something in the air, long filled with the weight of such things?

How much does it take before it really starts to show?  How long does she resist before it’s too much to hold?  It’s wearing.  Tiring.  The body psychosomatically bends, curves in on itself, like a protective shell.  An adaptive feature for survival in a hostile environment.  If it stays there long enough, it might even start to feel normal.  This is who I am, the mind starts to tell the body.  Maybe she even convinces herself that it’s better this way.  It’s easier not to look up and out.  Stay down, stay away, try to slip into the synagogue unnoticed to hear the teacher from Nazareth everyone’s been talking about.

Well, so much for that plan.

In his final recorded synagogue appearance Jesus has set aside the text, and called her up.  And there she is, with her bent body.

In his final meal with his closest companions, Jesus will put his own body front and center.  He will tell them that eating the bread and drinking the cup is a participation in his own body.  If they would see with eyes of faith, they would see that Jesus’ body is not just his own, but that they all share in that body.  The church has always taught that to be a part of the church is to share in the same body, the crucified and risen body of Christ.  We share in the sufferings, and we share in the miracle of being raised up.  Resurrection.

For those perceptive listeners in the synagogue that day, they may have recognized that they too share in the body of this woman.  She is not merely an unfortunate individual, but a sign of our collective reality.  A sign of how we are curved in on ourselves, and a sign of how we perpetuate patterns and habits and systems that cause others and whole groups of people to be bent over.  How we are all possessed by a disabling spirit.  Had they been especially tuned in, they would have perceived that their own salvation was connected to the salvation of this woman, their bodies made more whole when she is able to stand up straight, as Jesus will soon enable her to do.

Not everyone will see things this way.  The leader of the synagogue is not pleased.  He grasps for a reason for why this can’t be right.  It’s the Sabbath, come be cured on another day.  It’s not really technically against the Torah, and he’ll be shamed by Jesus’ ox analogy, losing the textual argument.  It’s just, you know, not how we do things around here.  It’s against protocol.  It messes with the order of things.

But in this story he’s a lone voice for this perspective.  Luke says, “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’  When he had laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

This passage ends by saying, “And the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.”  The collective body is made more whole through the healing of this woman.

By the grace of God, Humanity curved in on itself, Homo incurvatus in se, is raised up.  And we get a taste of the cup of salvation.  And the body rejoices.

 

 

“Neither shalt thou stand idly by” |24 July 2016

Text: Luke 10:25:37

A woman was walking out from her house to her car when suddenly two men snatched her purse, pushed her down, and fled the scene.  Several of her neighbors heard the commotion, opened their curtains, but quickly closed them again.  Another saw what happened and called 911.  Several others went out to the woman, helped her up, and stayed with her until the police and medics arrived.

Now the two men who mugged her were convicted felons.  They’d recently received early release from prison for good behavior.  They had every intention of finding a job and leading productive lives, but every place they applied rejected their application because of their status as felons.  Like other felons, they were barred from receiving federal cash assistance, food stamps, and other benefits.  They were also ineligible to live in public housing.  Without any source of income and without shelter, they soon resorted to petty crime to supply their needs.

They were never caught for stealing the woman’s purse.  One day, soon afterwards, they saw a news feature about a local organization with an internship program to help the formerly incarcerated get job placements.  Rather than using the word “felon,” or “ex-felon,” this organization referred to people like them as “returning citizens.”  The men visited the organization, were accepted as a part of the program, and after excelling through the six month internship, began full time jobs.  Once they were settled in an apartment with some extra cash, one of them had an idea that the other quickly agreed to, even though it involved breaking the law.

Late at night they returned to the home of the woman they had mugged.  They ran up to the mailbox, put an envelope inside (which is illegal), and drove off down the street before anyone saw them.  The next day when the woman was checking her mail she discovered an envelope full of cash, exactly twice the amount stolen from her purse months before.  She would never find out that the same people who robbed her had become her Good Samaritan.

Like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, this story never actually happened, although I did try to get the legal stuff right about the obstacles returning citizens face with felony charges.  Or maybe this story has happened, without us knowing it.  But it doesn’t have to be historical fact in order to be true.  That’s almost the definition of a parable.  True fiction.

Leviticus 19:18 commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It’s one of two scriptures cited by an expert in the law as an answer to his own question.  He had asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus had responded by asking him how he saw it.  “What is written in the Torah?” Jesus had asked.  “What do you read there?”

This passage from Leviticus was already recognized as one of the best distillations of the teachings of the Torah.  The prominent Rabbi Hillel, who taught before Jesus’ time and whose teachings Jesus often echoes, was once famously asked by a potential convert to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one leg.  As recorded in the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel assumed the one legged pose and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary.  Go and learn it” (Babylonian Talmud, b. Sabb. 31a).

It’s not an exact quote from Leviticus 19:18, but it gets at the same idea.  According to Rabbi Hillel, and Jesus, and even this expert in the law, fair treatment of one’s neighbor, is the centering principle of the Torah.  Everything else is just commentary.  The Torah is one big jazz performance, with a central theme, accompanied with near endless variations on that theme.

And so simply restating that central theme is not enough for the expert in the law.  “Love your neighbor,” is too general, too broad.  It provokes a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?”  Give us some commentary, Jesus.  Fill this out for us.  Tell us a story.  Now that the theme has been established, break out the instrument of choice and improvise a variation for us.

And this is what Jesus does.  After being asked this second question, “And who is my neighbor?” he proceeds to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

One day, not so long ago, a young man by the name of Philando Castile was driving down the streets of suburban St. Paul, Minnesota with his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four year old daughter.  They were on their way home from grocery shopping.  They were pulled over by police officers who radioed a nearby squad that the two adult occupants looked like people involved in a recent robbery.  The officer approached the car and asked Castile to produce his license and registration.

Now a pastor happened to be standing near the scene.  When he saw an officer pulling over a black man he thought to himself, “This is not going to turn out well.”

An activist was also standing nearby.  When she saw this unfolding in front of her she said to herself, “Oh no, here we go again.”

Now a longtime member of the NRA was walking down the street right where the car had been pulled over.  He heard the officer ask for the license and registration and heard Philando Castile reply that they were in his wallet and he would get them out.  When Castile also gave the officer a heads up that he was licensed to carry a gun and had one on him right now, the NRA member noticed the officer reach for his handgun.  Immediately the longtime member of the NRA ran toward the driver side of the car and thrust his body between the officer and Philando Castile.

The NRA member proceeded to defend the second amendment rights of the driver and demand that the officer put his own gun back in its holster.  Several intense minutes later the situation had deescalated.

The officer went back to his car, resuming his patrol of the neighborhood; and Philando Castile, Diamond Reynolds, and her four year old daughter drove home, to put away their groceries.

Like this story, maybe the parable of the Good Samaritan was based on a true story.  Maybe the introduction of the priest and Levite and Samaritan into the mix was a way of imagining how a tragic story could have turned out differently.  What if?  What if the narrative of violence was to be interrupted by someone we would least expect?  Who, I ask you, was the true neighbor in this story?

Perhaps Jesus created the Parable of the Good Samaritan out of scratch.  Or maybe it came to him from a real situation he’d observed or heard about.  But a close reading of Leviticus 19 makes one wonder whether some key ingredients of the parable were already right there, in Leviticus.

Leviticus 19:18 clearly says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but Leviticus 19:16, two verses before it, likely gets lost in translation.  The NRSV has it saying, “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”  If this is the correct translation, and if one were to make a connection between verses 16 and 18 of Leviticus, one might tell a parable much like the one about the robbers who eventually make restitution for their wrongs.  They are caught up in a system in which it is hard to do good, and so they do harm to survive.  After they are shown mercy, they realize they must right the wrongs they’ve done.  They pay back the harm they’ve caused, thereby fulfilling both commandments, Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”  Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I like this story, and since our Bible school theme is Surprise!, I like the surprise twist this places on the familiar parable.  Last week I talked about the injured traveler as the lost character in this parable, the one the original listeners would have identified with but who plays only a minor and passive role in our typical hearing.  But the robbers are the real lost characters.  Why have they stooped to robbing, and where is their redemption?

This is jazz, and a riff like that is perfectly in bounds under the unwritten rules of variations on a theme, but it’s not the variation Jesus took, and that translation of Leviticus 19:16 is not the one the rabbis have favored over the centuries.

The King James Version is a little closer to the plain meaning of the Hebrew, but is still kind of obscure: “neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor.”  Maybe that wasn’t obscure when it was translated 400 years ago, but I’m not sure what it means to “stand against the blood of thy neighbor.”  But the Hebrew word is indeed “stand” rather than “profit,” and there’s some relationship between that posture, and the blood of one’s neighbor.

The traditional translation from the Jewish Publication Society clarifies this.  It uses the phrase that I included as the sermon title: “neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.”  This translation makes Leviticus 19:16 a commandment against indifference, and noninvolvement.  It is reaffirmed in other Jewish writings, and it’s enticing to think it could have been the inspiration for the angle Jesus takes in his parable.

One ancient rabbinical teaching stated, “if you are in a position to offer testimony on someone’s behalf you are not permitted to remain silent.” (Sipra Qedosim 4:8; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan).  And since we’re already cited the Talmud this morning, a different Talmud portion acts as further commentary on Leviticus 19:16: “If one sees someone drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers one is obligated to save him, but not at the risk of one’s life” (b. Sanh. 73a).  The Talmud wasn’t edited and completed until centuries after Jesus, but that does sound a whole lot like the beginnings of a parable I think I’ve heard before.   In Jewish tradition, from the Torah to the Talmud, indifference, standing idly by, is not acceptable.

Last week I encouraged us to identify with the half dead traveler in Jesus’ parable.  Rather than seeing ourselves only as the helper, this challenges us to find ourselves in a story in which we are not the hero.  This goes against a lot of our training of how to be a good person.

But Jesus does eventually invite his listeners to identify with the Samaritan.  After telling the parable, he asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man?”  To which the left-leaning pacifist reluctantly replies, “I suppose it was the longtime NRA member.”  To which Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”

As I hear that original parable spoken to us, especially in our antiracism work, I hear an invitation for us to enter into a dual consciousness.  We are not the hero of this story.  We too need help.  We need delivered from our half-dead state.

And we are also called to the monumental task of overcoming the sin of indifference, or, if the Torah would have its way, the crime of indifference.  “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

I fully believe that there are countless variations on this theme, and that there is no single right way to do this.  It can range from taking to the streets, to talking with young children who are picking up on this theme and have lots of great questions.

And so, my fellow-non heroes of this story: How might we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors?

 

“Half dead” | 17 July 2016

Text: Luke 10:25-37

Toward the end of last year I saw a political cartoon that used the image printed on the bulletin cover.  This was at the peak of the debate about accepting Syrian refugees into the US.  A little over half of the nation’s governors had declared that their states were off limits.

GS

In the cartoon, text was superimposed at the bottom of this image, which said: “Bible school primer for governors during refugee crisis.”  There were also two dark arrows pointing at the travelers exiting the scene, with the words: “These guys are not the heroes of the story.”  Another arrow pointed to the one who had stopped to give assistance, with the text: “This guy is the hero of the story (you want to be this guy).”

GS hero

 

Aside from the political and moral message, a couple things stood out to me with the cartoon.

One was how deeply this parable of the Good Samaritan has made its way into our cultural lexicon.  Of all the stories and parables in the Bible, this is one of the most recognizable.  The political cartoon doesn’t work – or at least not near as well – unless this is the case.  The unwritten assumption is that everybody already knows who the hero is in this story.

The other thing that stood out to me is how much this parable has come to be about the moral agency of these three actors – the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.  One of the brilliant features of the parable is all the different questions it invites us to ask about why these characters do what they do.  Or don’t do what they don’t do.

The priest and the Levite are both religious figures.  Some commentators have wondered if they were concerned with purity laws, should the half dead person they see by the side of the road become completely dead.  The Torah rendered anyone who comes into contact with a corpse ritually unclean for a week (Numbers 19:11).  We can likely think of other examples when misguided religion is a hindrance to extending mercy and compassion.

A more contemporary angle is that the priest and Levite were simply too busy to stop.  It’s easy for us to imagine them being late for a very important date.  A now-somewhat famous experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1973 tested the hurry factor in acts of compassion.  Forty students participated in this project, which they thought was about public speaking and religious vocation.  Half the students were charged with preparing a speech on job opportunities after seminary, and half were charged with giving a speech about the Good Samaritan.  The speeches were to take place in another building across campus.  As it came time for each student’s turn to speak, some of the students in each group were told that they were running late and needed to hurry to give their speech, while others in each group were told they had plenty of time to make it to the other building.  An actor was strategically placed along the path they would all walk, slumped over, coughing and groaning, in clear need of help.

What the experiment showed was that the topic of the speech they were about to give had no bearing on the students response to this situation – even though one of the speeches was happening in real life along their path.  The determining factor of whether or not students stopped to help the person in need was how much of a rush they were in.  About 10% of the students who were in a hurry stopped, while over 60% of the students who were told they had plenty of time stopped to give some form of assistance.

This rings painfully true to our own experience.  What if our openness to acts of compassion is more determined by the pace of our life rather than what we believe?  Things have certainly not gotten less busy in the 43 years since the experiment.

Martin Luther King Jr. cited this parable often, including in his last public speech, April 3, 1968 in Memphis, speaking to striking sanitation workers, his “mountain top speech.”  Before he got to talking about the mountain top, he talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan, and how the priest and Levite may have been held back by fear.  The Jericho Road was a dangerous road, the robbers who left this man half dead may still be lurking.  King said:  “And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’

At other times King would take a wider lens approach to the parable and suggest that in order to prevent future robberies that the whole Jericho Road needed to be repaved, with some the good lighting and signage.  Personal acts of compassion eventually lead one to call for policy change to address underlying root causes.

The obstacle of religious purity, the obstacle of busyness, the obstacle of fear, the obstacle of structural and policy failure.  Any one of these could be and has been a sermon in itself.  The parable lends itself to many readings.

The parable is about these three characters who face a decision on the Jericho Road.  We identify with these characters.  We know who the hero is, and we know all too well some of the obstacles to acting that out in real life.

But I’d like to recover another dimension of the parable.  Because when Jesus would have told this parable, his audience would not have first identified with any one of those three characters.  The parable begins: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”

Jerusalem was the holy city, the site of the annual festivals Jesus and his people would have made pilgrimage to, up to several times a year.  The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was a common route for those coming from the northern Galilee region where Jesus lived and taught.  It was and is a winding and hilly road.  A dangerous road, with plenty of places for thieves to hide.  There was a more direct route to Jerusalem from Galilee – straight south.  But that one went through Samaria.  Many folks preferred the long way around, over to the east, then south, then once you hit Jericho you head back west winding your way up to Jerusalem.  Better to risk the dangers of that road than go through the territory of the hated Samaritans.  They hadn’t yet figured out how to build multi-lane highways through undesirable neighborhoods so they could avoid the people altogether.

So when Jesus tells a story about a traveler headed back down the road, from Jerusalem to Jericho, it is the traveler that the people are identifying with.  They can picture the road and the scenery.  They can feel the fear of getting ambushed.  They can easily imagine that it is they who have been left by the side of the road, stripped, beaten, and half dead.  If we would hear as Jesus’ audience first heart it, then we, dear listeners, are that traveler, in desperate need of help.  That’s us.  Our very life depends on someone, anyone, seeing us and taking the time to come attend to our wounds.  Who’s going to do it?  Who’s going to help us?

It’s a different way of experiencing the parable.  We are so used to being in the position of the helper – or at least the position of choosing whether we help or not.  Whether this situation is where we wish to direct our energy, whether this organization is where we give some of our tithe, whether this cause is where we invest our time.  These are all very real and difficult matters to discern.  But in this parable, you’re half dead.  You need help.  You’re so incapacitated that you’re the only character who doesn’t get an arrow pointed at you in a political cartoon.

This past week I read an essay from the Mennonite Quarterly Review that I’m still mulling over.  The author was Philipp Gollner, a new history professor at Goshen College in Indiana.  The title of the essay is “How Mennonites Became White” (MQR 90 April 2016).  The essay starts by recounting a conversation a friend of the author had with a business owner in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  The business owner had said that he employs six people – “three Amish, and three white guys.”  Gollner uses this brief exchange as a launching off point, wondering what it was about the Amish that caused that business owner to distinguish them from the white guys, even though the pigmentation of Amish skin is just as white as others.  How is it, the author wonders, that mainstream Mennonites came to be white moreso than their Anabaptist cousins, the Amish.

It’s a good question.  But I confess that the answer the author presents caught me off guard.  Here’s the author’s own summary of this argument: “I follow the story of the young Mennonite activists who moved to Chicago in 1894 in order to reach the city’s immigrants with works of benevolence and uplift, and to activate fellow Mennonites to transcend their ethnic tribe and shape the future of the nation. These activists did not simply become progressive, or americanized. Though already racially white, they now became recognizable clearly as good, white Protestants – through their belief in the privileged task of improving the world around them, and their desire for a more universally relevant church.”

In other words, this essay argues that Mennonite immigrants from Europe eventually became white Americans by entering into the already-racialized social matrix as helpers.  Or, to put it in the setting of our parable, Mennonites became white by attempting to be the Good Samaritan toward communities of color deemed to be in need.

What do you think of that argument?

Surely it’s not the only way Mennonites became white, but it does put an exclamation point on the original angle of this parable, which flips the script.  In our present context, in 21st century racially charged America, what if, rather than only asking how we might become the Good Samaritan, we see ourselves as being in need.  Highjacked by the side of the road by the invisible tentacles of racism that have beat us senseless, eyes so puffy we can barely see, half alive, half dead.  We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and confess we need help.  Who’s going to help us?

There’s all kinds of dangers and pitfalls this immediately presents.  In no way does this make people of color primarily responsible for helping white folks – their burden of self-liberation now made heavier with the task of liberating others.  It also doesn’t imply that white folks are the main victims of racism.  This is all really tricky.

What it does do, I hope, is call white folks to a posture of humility.  We need help.  We don’t have all the answers.  We don’t always have to be the problem solvers.  We’re hurting in ways we don’t even realize – thinking that we’re privileged and self-actualized when we might be half dead.

We need help from each other.  We need to be gentle with each other, even as we challenge each other.

This road to becoming racially conscious is not an easy road.  Just about every step has potential to be a stumble, and I’ve likely stumbled several times even this morning.  One of the gifts of congregations is that we have a certain trust level with one another, to be able to speak and make mistakes, and learn and grow and practice extending and receiving grace.

This whole story began with a lawyer asking Jesus how he might inherit eternal life.  Jesus proceeds to ask him and others to identify with a traveler who is only half alive.  The healing presence comes from the least expected sources, the Samaritan, the person, the place that the traveler was likely trying to avoid at all costs.

I pray that we recognize our need and that we open ourselves to healing from the most unlikely of sources, whatever, whoever, that might be.

Finding the question | 10 July 2016

Text: Luke 10:25-37

The questioner answers his own question, but remains unsatisfied.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks Jesus.

It’s a big question.  Like one of the big questions.  Right up there with What is the meaning of life? and What should I be when I grow up? and Where did I leave my phone?

What must I do to inherit eternal life?  Presented with the hypothetical situation of If you could ask Jesus just one question, what would it be? I’m guessing a fair amount of people would choose some version of this question.

Jesus could have taken this one any number of directions.  He could have given a concise answer summarizing his theology of the afterlife.

He could have named specific actions this specific person might take to right their life, like he would soon do with the rich young ruler who would come to him and ask the exact same question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “Sell all you own, and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” Jesus will say.  But not to this person.  Not in this situation.

He could have pointed out the confused nature of the question, how people who inherit something don’t need to do anything to receive what is theirs on account of being a child of the one passing along the inheritance.  A gift, a grace.

Had Jesus been a certain variety of Christian he could have replied, “Accept me into your heart as your personal lord and savior and you will have eternal life.”

But he selects None of the above.  He doesn’t give an answer at all.

Maybe Jesus knows he’s being tested, as Luke tells us when he introduces the lawyer and his question.  Perhaps this is another example of Jesus reframing the conversation, opening up a new set of possibilities the original question leaves out.  Or is Jesus just not all that interested in the question itself?  His refusal to answer another way of saying “EERRNNTT, Wrong question.”

What he does do is direct the question right back at the questioner, giving only a suggestion of where the answer to such a question could be found.  “What is written in the Torah?” Jesus asks.  “What do you read there?”

This was a question well-suited to the lawyer.  In the Jewish world at the time there was no distinction between civil and religious law.  One who carried the title of lawyer was one of the few members of society thoroughly literate and trained in the reading and interpretation of the books of Moses, the Torah, the law.  This person would know inside and out not just the Torah, but also the various interpretative schools that would have grown up through the decades and centuries.  Jesus’ question invites this lawyer to state how he has come to understand all these matters.  “What is written in the Torah?  What do you read there?”

The Torah scholar replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

This response is so insightful and innovative that when Matthew and Mark give their accounts of this exchange, they place these words in the mouth of Jesus rather than the mouth of his conversation partner.  It’s a quotation of two different verses: one from Deuteronomy – You shall love the Lord your God; and one from Leviticus – love your neighbor as yourself.  Both passages were highly valued in Jewish teaching, but there are no records before the gospels of them appearing side by side.  It was an interpretative innovation.  It was a breakthrough in the creation of spiritual technology, like you have the wheel, and you have the suitcase, and then one day someone decides they’re going to see what happens when they make suitcases with wheels – and the world is never the same.

Love God with all your being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Put them together, and now we’re really going places.  Matthew and Mark attribute this innovation to Jesus himself, but Luke is fine with allowing this lawyer to get the patent on this one.

And Jesus is fine with acknowledging the wisdom of it all.  “You have given the right answer,” he says.  “Do this, and you will live.”

It is perhaps noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t say, “Do this, and you will inherit eternal life.”  He simply says, “Do this, and you will live.”  Life is happening now, and when you walk in the way of love, when God and neighbor and self are brought together under the banner of love, then we begin to truly live.

And so, as Jesus himself states, the lawyer has found the right answer.

In the other accounts, this is where the exchange ends.  The original question has been addressed, the parties are in agreement, and there’s nothing left to discuss.  Mark goes so far as to say, “After this, no one dared to ask Jesus any question.”

But here, with Luke’s telling, we’re just warming up.  This exchange is picking up steam, the dialogue so far serving as something of an opening act to the main event, what we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

This passage is today’s lectionary reading, but we’ve decided to stick with it throughout the month of July.  It’s a parable that has made its way into the cultural lexicon well beyond the world of religion, but it’s often referenced in simplistic ways.  The parable has enough dimensions that there’s plenty of material to keep us going.    It’s also a fitting way for us to find our way back to a more intentional focus on antiracism, which we’ll carry through the end of the year.

So we will look into this parable – but we won’t get there today.  What I’m especially interested in at the onset is what prompts the telling of this famous parable.  Because it takes another question before Jesus wheels it out.

The questioner has answered his own question, correctly, but remains unsatisfied.  Jesus has rewarded him with the public honor of acknowledging his wise response, but has kept his own commentary to himself.

In looking over this familiar text again, I invite us to consider that this first part of the passage is about finding the right question rather than finding the right answer.

When the lawyer asks his follow up question, “And who is my neighbor?” I can almost hear Jesus saying, “Now that’s more like it.  That, my friend, is a good question.  Let me tell you a story.”  This second question is not one that Jesus will bounce back to the questioner.  He has some things to say about this, almost as if he’s been mulling this very question over for years and is thrilled someone else is also interested.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend I also consider a mentor, now over 70 years old.  A few years ago he said something to the effect that each person really only gets to pursue a couple questions in their life.  This has showed up in certain ways in his life as a biblical scholar, and likely rings true to all you PhD’s among us who find your question, your area of focus, and dig in deep to see what all you can discover.  It could also apply to other vocational settings.  The designer asks how they can create something both beautiful and useful.  The social worker asks how they can affirm and enrich the humanity of their clients.  The business owner asks how they can provide their service in a way that is efficient, fair, and profitable.  The pastor asks: Can I really milk this parable for a whole month?

More broadly speaking, the life of faith seems like it very much has to do with asking the right questions.  If we only get to really pursue a couple of them in our lives, then what are those questions, or perhaps the question, we want to be asking?  Depending on the question we ask, our lives will take on a very different shape.  The lawyer’s first question, if twisted for selfish gain, “How can I inherit eternal life” could lead to a rather shallow and self-centered existence.  Or, in its very extreme, could provide the spiritual backdrop of a suicide bomber assured of their place in paradise.  The lawyer’s second question, “And who is my neighbor?” could lead a white person like me to look at the events of the past week and consider how I am connected with the police killings of two more black men – Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – and the killing of five police officers – Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson.  Asking that question could lead one to an ever expanding definition of neighbor and neighborhood.

Before heading out to Camp Friedenswald last week I grabbed a book off my shelf to review in some spare moments.  It’s called Letters to a Young Poet and includes a collection of letters written over 100 years ago from the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, addressed to an aspiring young writer who initiated the exchange.  The book only contains the letters of Rilke, but you can get a sense of what the young poet is asking through Rilke’s replies.  In one of his letters, Rilke writes this: “You are so young, you have not even begun, and I would beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue.  Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them.  It is a matter of living everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer” (p. 21, 2002 edition)

Being guided by questions rather than certain answers is something that has almost come to define progressive Christianity.  It’s become a familiar and productive way to go about life, and this is a beautiful thing.  But it still remains for us to choose which questions we will be living.  What are the few, or the one question that we’ll stick with through life?  Maybe that’s question enough to get started.

I suggest that this prelude to the Parable of the Good Samaritan offers us one of those centering questions that we can live.  The lawyer begins by seeking an answer, but ends up finding a question.  “Who is my neighbor?”  It’s a question that can only be answered in the living of it.  A question that directs us close in to the heart of God, that beats with love for all creation, all creatures who have inherited life.

A ship for the storm | 19 June 2016

Text: Luke 8:16-25

It’s the time of year for church conferences.  This Thursday we’ll begin hosting the Central District annual gathering.  If this were an odd numbered year, we’d also be preparing for the national Mennonite Church USA Convention, which is usually over the fourth of July and often in a southern state.  Having Conventions in July in the South is one of the ways frugal Mennonites save money.  Next summer we’ll be in Florida, in Orlando.  The venue of course was decided some time ago, and up until last week the main association in our house with Orlando was whether the girls would get to go to Harry Potter world.

For the last week, Orlando has become synonymous with death and trauma.  There was unimaginable horror inside the Pulse nightclub directed against queer and trans Latinx folks.  Yesterday’s Pride Parade in Columbus was both a sobering and celebratative time for LGBT folks and allies to gather as a community and express solidarity with one another.

Like last week, we designated this Sunday as a time to do some reflecting on the life of the wider Mennonite church.  The timing in coincidental, but this being Pride weekend, and having Orlando so fresh in our minds, sharpens the question of how our deeply divided denomination will move forward in relationship to LGBT members among us.  Like last week, we are focusing on one of the scriptures that will be used during CDC worship services.  All three of those services are based on stories from Luke 8, which is right where the lectionary is these days.

Very early on, leaders of the Christian movement used the image of a ship or a boat, as a metaphor for the church.  Hints of this can be traced all the way back to the New Testament.  The letter of 1 Peter makes a connection between the death and resurrection one experiences through the waters of baptism, and the ark of Noah and his family that brought them through the ancient flood waters.  In the Noah myth, the ark, the ship, preserved human and animals through the overwhelming waters as the old world underwent a death and resurrection.  Even before Genesis tells that story, it portrays the world as a watery chaos.  Now the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from Elohim, the god, swept over the face of the waters.

In the second century, Clement of Alexandria noted that a sea vessel was one of the appropriate Christian symbols to use for a signet ring.

Church father Tertullian, writing in the second and third century, spoke of the ship in which the disciples were tossed back and forth on the sea as a figure for the church.

This symbol later became much more tangible in church architecture.  The traditional name for the main body of the church is the nave.  It means ship, and takes its name from the same Latin word we use for the navy.  The nave, the ship, is where the laity sits.  It holds the people.  Many centuries ago, church leaders recognized that the proverbial watery chaos out of which the world was created had not gone away.  What is needed, what we have been granted by God through the church, they believed, was a vessel to carry us through the floods and storms.

Looking up at the arching beams in some cathedrals is very much like looking down into the ribs of a ship.  This is by design.  I’m not sure what kind of ship it is we’re floating in here.  Definitely a Protestant ship.

Before the story of the boat on the stormy waters, Luke 8 contains another image of the church.  Luke writes: “Just then (Jesus’) mother and brothers came to see him, but they couldn’t get through the crowds.”  Supposedly this is Jesus’ biological mother and brothers, his kinship group that so thoroughly defined identity and responsibility in the ancient world.  As a son and brother, Jesus has a cultural/religious obligation of loyalty and honor toward his kin.  But in one crisp statement, Jesus redefines, or at least expands, the notion of family.  He says to those gathered around him, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

This was most likely a very painful moment and ongoing source of tension for Jesus’ family of origin.  But it is pretty sweet for everyone else, those of us who are suddenly on the inside of Jesus’ kinship group.  It’s a prominent metaphor for the church that we continue to use.  The church as a family, defined not by blood or ethnic lines, but by a common commitment to hear the Word, however that might come to us.  And to do it.  We are the clan of the hearers and doers.  Or, as one friend has put it:  The “tryers.”  We try.  Those responsibilities once reserved for closest of kin now apply to the church.  To care for one another.  To support and visit each other when we’re sick, or in prison.  To bake a casserole.  To give when we can give, and receive when we need to receive.  Or at least try.  This is how healthy families function.  The church comes into being under the banner of a new kinship group.  And the repercussions of this, still working themselves out, have never been smooth sailing.

It’s at this point in Luke’s gospel, not so coincidentally, when Jesus and his disciples, spiritual siblings all, climb into the boat to go to the other side of the lake.  Observant commentators have pointed out that when the gospels speak of going to “the other side” of the lake, the sea of Galilee, that this is loaded with symbolic significance.  Roughly speaking, the western side of that body of water was populated by Jews, while the eastern side was populated by Gentiles – non Jews.  The story right after this lake crossing is when Jesus encounters Legion, and unclean tombs, and pigs.  Very un-Jewish.  Going to the other side is an act of bridging and connecting the human family, separated by the waters, now, in process of being brought together under the banner of a new kinship group.  Going to the “other side” is not a smooth ride.

And so, while Jesus takes a well-deserved nap on board, a windstorm sweeps down on the lake, and the boat is nearly overwhelmed.  As it fills with water, the newly dubbed siblings scramble to wake up their elder brother Jesus, shouting: “Master, Master, we are perishing!”  We’re dying in here!  In this story, church father Tertullian found a ready-made metaphor for life in this imperfect family, this precarious ship, we refer to as ‘the church.’  The church as a ship, a boat, holding us through dangerous and stormy waters, accompanied by Jesus.

One of the things I see now in the Mennonite Church in the US is that just about everybody agrees we’re in the middle of a storm, but we disagree sharply about what the storm is.  For some, the storm is the dangerous waters of secularism.  The storm is trying to carry us away from our biblical foundations.  The church is to carry us safely through these waves of cultural deterioration that threaten to take us down.  For others, the storm is the dangerous waters of religious fundamentalism.  The church is the space where we can breathe fresh air even as the rigid readings of scripture, within our own tradition and others, threaten to drown the human spirit.

For some the storm is caused by who we are letting on board the ship, and for others, the storm is caused by those who keep people off the ship.

There’s a mighty storm raging, but when what some people believe to be beautiful and faithful is seen by others as the very cause of the storm, where does that leave us?

This past week I had some exchange with a friend who has worked relentlessly for the last decade to make the national Mennonite church a welcoming place for folks who identify as queer.  This person has been met with much resistance.  One of my questions to them, asked out of genuine curiosity but also concern, was this: “Why do you and other queer folks remain engaged with the Mennonite Church?  It seems something akin to (or just is) an abusive relationship.  Why invest precious emotional energy toward an unrepentant system?”

Their response: “This is…a very good question.  One I’ve been considering deeply lately.  It’s an open question for me.”

The truth of the matter is that untold numbers of LGBT folks have had to leave the Mennonite and other churches for their own soul survival.  I haven’t seen any write ups on how anyone in the Pulse club in Orlando related with religion, but I have no doubt that for many of them, Pulse was their ship.  Pulse was their sanctuary in the storm.  Pulse was the place where they knew they were with family, an extended kinship group abounding in a love they may not have encountered anywhere outside those walls.

The church is a ship, but it appears there are many other vessels afloat on these waters.  And I would venture to say that Christ is very much alive and present in Pulse, and other places of sanctuary, declaring “Peace, be still.”  Rebuking the wind and raging waves.

When theologians have spoken of ‘the church’ they have meant, by and large, the church universal.  That’s catholic, little “c,” church.  “I believe in the holy catholic church,” the Apostles Creed says.  The church is greater than a single congregation, greater than a conference or denomination, greater than national boundaries.  It is not a little fishing boat.  It is an ocean liner.

I recognize this is not how most of us here experience the church.  It’s a truism these days in church leadership circles that people don’t join a denomination, they join a congregation.  In other words, most of you might care hardly at all about what Mennonite Church USA is doing.  What matters is that you are journeying with this group of people, this eccentric extended family, who you see face to face, some of whom literally walk alongside you through life.  Yet, it remains, that to be in this church is also to be in the bigger boat, whether we like it or not.  If you have mixed feelings about this, you are not alone.

I have nothing conclusive to say about any of this.  I’m grateful that our congregation is working at being a place of sanctuary and bravery for queer folks and those of us learning how to be allies.  I’m grateful we’re talking about white privilege and black lives matter and intersectionality.  I’m grateful we are a part of a tradition that names its rejection of violence in all forms, even if we aren’t living up to the high calling.  I’m saddened that some have to leave in order to survive.

I have to believe that the boat is not merely a floatation devise riding out the waves, but that we are actually going somewhere.  I don’t even know if the denominational ship will hold together at this point, but there is some boat, somewhere, that is headed to the other side, and I want to be on board.  We are headed to the glorious and unknown other side.  Even if you don’t know what you believe about God and Jesus and salvation and church and all that, you know intuitively that this cannot be a solo journey, and we have chosen a group of people to journey with together.  Friends, we surely have not yet arrived, but we are on our way to the other side.  And whether he’s napping, or on the lookout, or hanging out on the deck, or dancing to the pulse of the music with all the dark skinned queers, the Christ is with us.  And that’s good news.  Lord knows, we need some help in these waters.

Going sane | 12 June 2016

Text: Luke 8:26-39

hellolegion

The prophet Isaiah once walked around the land of Judah barefoot and naked – for three years.  This likely falls under the category of “Bible stories I didn’t learn in Sunday school.”  We are rather fond of Isaiah overall.  This is the prophet who spoke of the peaceable kingdom: “the wolf shall live with the lamb…the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  Who declared, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.”  The same prophet who spoke of the coming of Immanuel, whose vision of a just and wise ruler we so readily connect with the person of Jesus.  This prophet, Isaiah, one of the most cherished voices in Jewish and Christian tradition– once went three years without wearing any clothes – in public.

He did this as a sign.  That’s what it says in Isaiah chapter 20 where this happens.  The Lord, Yahweh, wanted naked Isaiah to be a sign to the people about what would happen to those who violently rebelled against the great empire of their day, Assyria.  They would be stripped of all they had and utterly put to shame.  Over the span of those three years, every time Isaiah passed their way, people would have to consider that it was their own nakedness that was really at stake.

Wendell Berry has a whole series of poems about The Mad Farmer.  He’s willing to claim this title for himself because of his belief that in a world gone insane with greed and destruction, the only sane response is to go “mad.”  We’ve borrowed the last line from one of his more well-known poems, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, for past Easter worship themes: “Practice resurrection.”

Here are some words from another poem “The contrariness of the Mad Farmer:”

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. ‘Dance,’ they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.

 

Who’s the crazy one?  The Mad Farmer who tills, and plants, and reaps, and dances at all the wrong times, or those who stand quietly in line at the gate of the Kingdom?

Who’s the crazy one?  The naked prophet who walks in peace, or the clothed countrymen who prepare for war?

In Luke chapter 8 Jesus encounters a person who, by just about any measure, is crazy.  Luke refers to him as “a man of the city.”  Cities are hubs of civilization, where culture and technology and learning collide and collaborate in a cosmopolitan mix.  We’re in one right now.  But Luke goes on to describe how this man has abandoned the standard markers of civilized life.  “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.”

Along with being homeless and clothes-less, this man’s social manners leave something to be desired.  Rather than greeting Jesus with a handshake, a fist bump, a hello, or even a silent head nod, he falls down in front of Jesus and shouts at the top of his voice.  Luke goes on to fill out the picture of this man by noting that he was often kept under guard and even chained down, but that he would break the chains, and wander into the wilds.

In the first century, a person like this was said to have demons.  We once called this condition insanity, and would now classify it under any number of mental illnesses.

A scholar and activist by the name of Ched Myers was the first person I ever heard suggest that more might be going on here than just a troubled individual in need of personal healing.  Ched points to the interaction that happens after Luke has established this man’s symptoms.

Jesus asks, “What is your name?”  The reply: “Legion.”

A legion was a Roman army contingent of several thousand soldiers.  Jesus and this person whose name his momma and daddy gave him at birth was certainly not “Legion,” and all the people of the region lived under occupation, their land possessed by an uninvited, and unwanted power.   What the people were experiencing collectively, this person was experiencing personally, with the possession and occupation of his body, his mind.  The cycle of being chained and trying to break free, chained and trying to break free; the contradictions of needing to both suppress and express anger, anxiety and anguish, are all manifested in this one person.  Everyone in the city, and in the countryside goes about their daily business, but all is not well, and this man is a sign of a much larger dis-ease.

A couple weeks ago I had lunch with Molly Shack.  She was born and raised in Columbus and works with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.  She spoke at a recent racial justice event in Columbus.  Over the course of conversation Molly noted that she was close friends with MarShawn McCarrel who was the young man who died by suicide on the Ohio Statehouse steps in February.  MarShawn was a Black Lives Matter activist.  Molly said she experienced this as a major wake up call for how important it is for people like her and MarShawn to take care of themselves and not be overcome by the heaviness of their work.  She felt like MarShawn was a healthy person, who had taken on too many of the demons of society.  I told her I also had a close friend who took his own life in his twenties and how I had felt that Shem, rather than being blind, actually saw more clearly than most people.  That he gazed deeper than most into the troubles of the world, and that he just couldn’t find a place to stand firm in the midst of it all.  She nodded her head in agreement, and we had an unexpected moment of shared grief.

Who are the crazy ones?  Who is the sign for whom?  What are the prophets of Yahweh saying these days?

Please hear me that I am in no way saying that all mental illness can be attributed to the ills of society, or that suicide is always some kind of noble prophetic act.

What this gospel story asks of us is to consider all the powers that possess and colonize our minds, and how we do or don’t respond and resist.  Who and what gets to define what it means to be healthy and sane?

Jesus is not deterred by the Legion.  In a not so subtle wink of Jewish humor, he sends the pathetic demons into a group of nearby pigs, who proceed to rush to their own destruction, the legion army drowned in the sea just like Pharaoh’s horse and riders of long ago.  While I’m not particularly fond of the idea of my precious Jesus allowing the death of all these animals, I can accept the point of the story.  Jesus has cast out the power which occupied the man and the land.  As a bonus, these unclean pigs running around Gentile territory have been removed from the premises to make it kosher for Jews to hang out.  The man is soon clothed and in his right mind, sitting at Jesus feet not as someone shouting obscenities, but as a disciple.  All is now well.

Except, all is not well.  The story isn’t done quite yet.  Apparently there have been people watching this all along.  There are witnesses.  They see the transformation in this man, crazy ole’ Legion, who is now well.  This is supposed to be a Monty Python moment when “there was much rejoicing.”  Instead it says that the witnesses were afraid.  When word spreads to others, people come from the whole surrounding countryside to see, and once again, Luke notes that they were “seized with great fear.”

Crazy ole’ Legion, that wild man who couldn’t hold down a job or a home and lived naked in the tombs, who mothers warned their children about, who men joked about and cursed in the marketplace, who older children told scary stories about to the younger children, who had become a thing of legend, everything evil and scary and wrong with the world projected onto this one individual, crazy ‘ole Legion.

Now there’s nothing wrong with him at all.  He is just a normal human being.  Now the people no longer have a safe place to heap all their own anxiety and anger and dis-ease.  Now they must come face to face with what possesses them, and do their own soul work of resistance and healing.  They had needed this man to be crazy, the village idiot, the scapegoat, the queer, the one out there who shelters them from their own dis-ease.  This man is clothed and in his right mind, and the people are terrified.

The equilibrium has been disturbed.  The family system has lost its homeostasis.  He has exposed what was hidden.  Luke reports: “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.”  Jesus must go.  Now.  If he leaves, we can restore the balance.  Find another person or group to carry the blame.  They can be crazy and we can be sane, and all will be well.

If he stays, then there is no outside.  There are no outer spaces, no unclean haunts.  There are no places left to hide our demons.

If the Christ stays, we will have to face our own deepest hurts and anxieties.  We will have to confess our own complicity.  We will be exposed.

If we send the Christ away, we can restore the balance.

If he stays…who knows what will happen?

 

 

Wisdom calls | 29 May 2016

 

Texts: Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31, John 1:1-5

 

About four years ago the University of Chicago received a large grant from the John Templeton Foundation.  It was for the creation the Wisdom Research Project.  The project is pretty much what it sounds like, and describes its mission this way: “ We want to understand how an individual develops wisdom and the circumstances and situations in which people are most likely to make wise decisions.  We hope that, by deepening our scientific understanding of wisdom, we will also begin to understand how to gain, reinforce, and apply wisdom and, in turn, become wiser as a society.”

Dr. Howard Nusbaum is the Director of this project and was recently interviewed in a publication I receive, which is how I found out about it (Bearing: for the Life of Faith, A publication of the Collegeville Institute, Spring 2016, pp. 16-17).  The interview notes that Wisdom researchers “use everything from brain scans to personal narratives to help them test their hypotheses about wisdom.”  Some are researching the effects of meditation on awareness and humility, both keys for wisdom.  Others are looking at the relationship between wisdom and the body.  For example, one research team has found that “years of ballet practice are related to increased wisdom.”  It’s never too late to start… Other researchers are finding significant connections between wisdom and sleep!  While sleeping our brains help us to generalize “from experiences, allowing us to use knowledge from one experience to help with a novel situation.”

So the next time you take a nap or lay down at night to sleep, consider it an exercise in gaining wisdom.

Nusbaum is especially interested in asking, “What is the relationship between wisdom and human flourishing?”  He cites Aristotle who believed these two were closely connected.  Nussbaum says that flourishing “does not necessarily mean health, prosperity, and pleasure.  Rather,” he says, “it seems to refer to a broader sense of social connection.”

I love that something like the Wisdom Research Project exists, and wonder how much we would learn if we spent half as much researching wisdom as we spend researching weapons and warfare.

The search for Wisdom is ancient.  If you are a member of the homo sapiens, a safe assumption, your very taxonomic classification, names you as “sapient human,” “wise human.”  Although when I looked up “sapient” it was defined as “wise, or attempting to appear wise,” which sounds about right.

In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is not merely something to be sought, but something, someone, doing the seeking.  Wisdom is personified as a female sage.  The bulletin cover artwork is one artist’s imaginative portrayal of Wisdom.  Proverbs 8 begins: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?”  Here, Wisdom is not hiding in foggy mists.  She is not trying to be elusive.  Wisdom has things to say.  Wisdom is calling.  Wisdom wants to be heard and she is raising her voice.

But where?  Where do you have to go to hear Wisdom?  The text goes on: “On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrances she calls out.”  Where is Wisdom to be found?  Up, down, out on the traveling road, everywhere roads intersect, in the city, at the gate where people gather and judicial cases are decided and economic exchanges take place.  Wisdom is everywhere.  You can’t get away her.  You almost can’t miss her.

Back to the text: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”  If you are alive, you are on the list of those to whom Wisdom is calling.

You don’t need a holy book to find Wisdom.  You don’t need to be literate.  You don’t need a degree, a credential, you don’t need a certain income level, you don’t need permission to listen to what Wisdom is saying.  You don’t need a multi-million dollar grant, although I wouldn’t suggest turning it down if someone offered it.  Wisdom, Proverbs suggests, is utterly accessible to woman, man, child – anyone with ears to hear, as Jesus was fond of saying.

In the age of the internet, this description of Wisdom sounds pretty close to the way we are now experiencing information.  Does not information call?  Do not audio and visual media raise their voice?  On the heights, beside the way, in the home, at the office, in the car, in the coffee shop, anywhere a wi-fi connection can be had, as far as LTE can reach?  To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all who have a device to receive me.

If you ask me just about any fact-seeking question, I could have you an answer as fast as I could enter it into my phone.  For most of us it has become totally normal to have 24 hour access to the all-knowing, all-present global brain, as close as your pocket.

I am in no way complaining about this state of affairs.  I’m rather fond of living in the digital age.  But let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that having access to information does not mean that we are wise.  Information and wisdom, being smart and being wise are two different things.  Our President’s visit to Hiroshima this past week calls to mind the time when our nation got the smartest people together all in one room to come up with a solution to a problem, and they created the atomic bomb – which was used, twice, against our enemies, the civilians of Japan.  Information and wisdom, being smart and being wise are two different things.  One could argue that the smarter and more powerful we become as homo sapiens, the more urgent the need to become wise.

Proverbs 8 has more to say about Wisdom.  Wisdom and God, it appears, go way back.  Like, way back.  Proverbs 8:22 speaks in the voice of Wisdom: “Yahweh created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”

Before the bang banged, wisdom was.  Before the drifting remains of a supernova star began aggregating together, forming the space ball we now know as planet earth, Wisdom was there.

Proverbs: “When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with waters.  Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil…when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker.”

Following the entire arc of this passage is like taking a trip back to Genesis itself, such that all that is, has come about under the watchful eye, through the power of, Wisdom.

So not only does Wisdom call out to all that lives, but Wisdom is embedded within all that lives.

Consider the lilies, Jesus said.  Consider the birds of the air.

Consider the cyanobacteria 2.7 billion years ago that learned how to receive the energy of sun in such a way so as to part the waters, to part water itself, the first to set oxygen free from its bondage to those two hydrogens, through photosynthesis, creating the kind of oxygenated atmosphere that enables creatures like us to breath.

Consider the strands of fungi under the soil, under this building, connecting tree to tree, root to root, an underground shipping and receiving network of water and nutrients.

Consider the world wide web of life, of wind currents, the unhurried tectonic shifts that thrust up mountains and push continents drifting toward and away from one another.

This is the world that Wisdom built.

John begins his gospel by speaking of the Logos, the Word, in a way similar to Wisdom.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  All things came into being through it, and without it not one thing came into being…  And the Word, the Logos, became flesh, and dwelt among us.”  Jesus is an embodiment of Wisdom.  His frequent talk of coming to bring abundant life finds echoes in Dr. Nusbaum’s question about wisdom research:  “What is the relationship between wisdom and human flourishing?”

So here’s my question: If Wisdom is calling out, everywhere, to everyone; if Wisdom is woven into the very fabric of creation; if the Christian tradition was founded on and celebrates embodied wisdom – then why is it so hard to become wise?  Why is it so hard to listen to whatever it is that Wisdom is saying?

Wisdom is a creator, and yet so much of what we are undertaking these days is uncreating the world that Wisdom has built.

We need elders to teach us how to listen to Wisdom.  We need our children to remind us of Wisdom.

There’s one more thing Proverbs 8 says about Wisdom, right where we left off.  “When he marked off the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in the inhabited world, and delighting in the human race.”  That word for “rejoicing,” which shows up twice, is translated by the Jewish Publication Society as “playing.”  Wisdom is not only a work horse, a mad scientist and visionary artist, but Wisdom is playful, Wisdom rejoices, Wisdom delights in the human race.

This past Thursday, after the group had met at Wendy’s headquarters in Dublin to demand fair wages and working conditions, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their allies from around the Midwest came to CMC to have a lunch.  There was good reason to be discouraged.  Wendy’s continues to be the last holdout of the major fast food chains not to join the CIW Fair Food Program.  The folks who pick our tomatoes, predominantly Spanish speaking, have been working for over two decades to create the kinds of conditions for themselves in which they and their children can at least have the chance to flourish.  It’s hard work, and I can barely imagine being in their place and doing what they do.

But on Thursday, here in our fellowship hall, there was delight.  There was cheering, there was laughter, there was a good meal and conversation shared by all, there was an impromptu birthday song for one of the long time allies of CIW.

Wisdom plays.  Wisdom delights in the human race.  Wisdom calls us to put down our labors from time to time, and throw a fiesta, and rejoice in the goodness of life that the Creator has brought about through Wisdom.

“To you, O people, I call, and my invitation to the Great Fiesta is to all that live.”